Saturday Night Live cast member Kate McKinnon knew she had to find a way to capture Hillary Clinton’s laugh. After all, it is almost as iconic—and as mocked—as the former Secretary of State.
The result has been so good that the SNL writers have to ration how often they can deploy McKinnon’s outburst on a show that has the power to shape how millions of Americans see their politicians. Ask Sarah Palin how damaging Tina Fey’s impression of her was to her bid to become Vice President in 2008.
For McKinnon, her Clinton is an amplification of her most obvious traits.
“Obviously, this is an exaggeration of her actual laugh,” McKinnon tells TIME in an interview. “She’s definitely doesn’t laugh that way always. She does have a throaty, hearty laugh that we’ve heard. Or maybe I heard it just once and I said, ‘That’s the laugh that I’m going to do.’”
No, it’s there and it’s frequent. (Some call it a cackle, deploying a word almost no one would use to describe a man.) The laugh is so much a part of Clinton’s persona that, during her 2008 bid, Clinton joined SNL to respond to her then-impersonator, Amy Poehler. “Do I really laugh like that?” she asked, before shrugging. “Yeah, well.”
Played these days by McKinnon, SNL’s Clinton vacillates between love-hungry and craven. “Why won’t the people just let me lead? Give me the hammer and the nails and let me fix it all,” McKinnon bemoaned last week in a skit that included a cameo from real-life Clinton as a bartender named Val. “I’ve had a hard couple of 22 years.”
The writers say this version of Clinton comes from an effort to show her more than a caricature. Sure, the former Secretary of State is a shrewd and ambitious political animal. But at the same time, she’s a grandmother who just wants to make history as the nation’s first female President.
“I just try to channel her staunchness and sweetness at the same time,” McKinnon says. “It’s really the juxtaposition of those two things that makes her funny.”
McKinnon’s Clinton is, for sure, funny. But she’s also sometimes dark and cynical. When McKinnon slips into the pantsuit and pins on the blond wig, she becomes the embodiment of Clinton’s frustrations and disbelief that, once again, she could be thwarted by a public that will not warm to her.
“I have wanted to be President since before I was born,” McKinnon said last season as Clinton, chuckling. “What a relatable laugh.” During another appearance as Clinton, McKinnon returned to her ambition. “My last vacation was in 1953. I played one round of hopscotch with a friend. I found it tedious,” McKinnon said. “I mean, why hop when you can march straight to the White House?”
Clinton, for her part, has endorsed her McKinnon-made self. “A vote for Hillary is a vote for four more years of Kate McKinnon’s impression,” Clinton tweeted last weekend.
TIME chatted with McKinnon and SNL writing supervisors Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider about how they approach Clinton. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
TIME: How did you think last week’s episode went with Secretary Clinton?
McKINNON: I thought that she did a great job. It was the greatest day of my life, I’ll say that. She was so incredibly warm and wonderful and the first time she read it through, (she) hit all of the comedic beats that we wanted her to. She was just really great in the sketch. That made it so much easier.
KELLY: She was so easy. She was down to joke about anything. She didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to joke about this.’ We presented her the sketch that we wanted her to do and they were all, it was great. It was very easy and fun and cool.
TIME: Nothing was off limits?
KELLY: There was no joke that we wrote that they said cut this.
SCHNEIDER: She truly didn’t give us a ton of restrictions. Seeing that first-hand and having it come from her mouth is so refreshing. We have so many people who come and in have such restrictions on what they will and won’t do, for someone running for president to not be like that was hugely refreshing and made a huge, positive impression for all of us.
TIME: Did she have any pointers on how to portray her a little better?
McKINNON: No. She was very respectful. I maybe said too much. I was so grateful and told her thank you so much for your service to this country and thank you for coming here and for saving the world, et cetera. I think I played it cool.
TIME: Can you walk me through how you came up with making Clinton a bartender? In my mind, bartenders are supposed to be these down to earth, easy-to-talk-to people? That runs so counter to the perception of Secretary Clinton. What was that process like?
KELLY: We were spit-balling different things she could do. You know, there have been past political sketches and impressions when the person comes out as themselves, or talking to themselves in a mirror. We were curious about a different thing she could do. We were pitching on the idea of her as a bartender. We like the idea of being able to have Kate talk to Hillary as if she wasn’t Hillary. And to let Hillary comment on herself as if she were someone else, it let us have the ability to make jokes that we wouldn’t have been able to make if she were playing herself.
SCHNEIDER: It was an outsider take on Hillary.
KELLY: It was the little thing. It was like Kate saying to Hillary as a bartender, ‘God, you’re so great, bartender, I wish you could be president.’ And Hillary saying, ‘Me too.’ It works much better if it’s the bartender saying it. You still know who is saying it. It was so silly. It make us laugh to hear her say, ‘Hi, I’m Val.’
TIME: She’s sticking with Val out on the road.
KELLY: What do you mean?
TIME: When someone asked her if they could call her Hillary, she said, ‘Or you can call me Val.’
KELLY: That’s awesome.
TIME: Kate, how do you get into your Clinton? Does it happen when you put the hair on? The pantsuit? Where do you get that character from?
McKINNON: It came from the three of us sitting around. I just try to channel her staunchness and sweetness at the same time. It’s really the juxtaposition of those two things that makes her funny.
TIME: They’re both in equally strong measure?
TIME: Both in your portrayal and in her as a candidate, that some days she’s this hawkish foreign policy wonk and other days she’s out there talking about her granddaughter Charlotte?
SCHNEIDER: That’s what drew her to us, as not only as someone to parody but also as a character in herself. She has that dichotomy within her. We really like writing both sides of that.
KELLY: That mentality of wanting something so bad that it’s almost violent. ‘God, just give it to me.’ But also, on the other hand, maybe you should just give it to her because everyone else who is running is a clown. She does have so much experience. Her ‘I want it so bad’ is ultimately justified because she’s done all of these jobs. She’s not wrong to want it so bad and feel it so much. You feel for her. You agree with her, sort of.
McKINNON: ‘I want it so bad because I know how to fix this and I need to get in there and fix this. Let’s get down to business. And I will do it.’
TIME: Is that where do the crazy eyes come from?
McKINNON: The crazy eyes are apparently something that I just cannot help.
KELLY: That comes from birth.
TIME: This Clinton is a lot darker than Amy Poehler’s version. Is that intentional? How did that come about?
McKINNON: I don’t really think of it as darker. I mean, I couldn’t do an impression of Amy’s impression—as much as I adore Amy’s impression. We tried to come up with a different take on it that was a character.
KELLY: There’s also probably something to it, too, that when it was eight years, ago, hers was the take that ‘I wanted it bad. I’m the smartest one in the room.’ It was already there a little bit. Now, this woman has had to wait eight more years, so of course that’s why her take is a little more desperate, or a little more upset around the edges, or ‘C’mon guys, just me let me do it. It’s been eight years.’
TIME: Have there been something that you’ve taken out of a sketch because it was so over-the-top?
SCHNEIDER: A few times we’ve written some very ambitious monologues for Kate that we’ve then deemed as too cartoonish for Hillary.
McKINNON: It’s too long.
SCHNEIDER: We want to make sure is a character but also remains real because she is such as respected, prominent woman.
TIME: You mention you want Clinton to be staunch and sweet. What components go into the Hillary Clinton that we watch on Saturday nights?
McKINNON: It really is shades of those two things. A comedic character is really always the juxtaposition of two disparate elements. For us, that’s what makes her funny.
TIME: Where does the laugh come from?
McKINNON: The laugh is real. If you watch certain clips of her, she does laugh. Obviously, this is an exaggeration of her actual laugh. She’s definitely doesn’t laugh that way always. She does have a throaty, hearty laugh that we’ve heard. Or maybe I heard it just once and I said, ‘that’s the laugh that I’m going to do.’
SCHNEIDER: In the first version there were about five times as many laughs. We liked it so much. But we had to tone that down a little bit.
TIME: How did you find that laugh? I cannot imagine that’s something you nailed the first time.
McKINNON: That was the thing that I clung to first. It’s not like she has some crazy accent or does anything crazy. She’s actually just a pretty normal person. So the one think I clung to was this fun laugh that she sometimes—maybe just even once —had. And then she has that slight Midwestern accent so I just really clung to those two things.
TIME: I’m curious. Where do the costumes come from? Are those off-the-rack? Are those custom?
McKINNON: I think they go to a political women’s store and buy in bulk. There’s a lot of other women politicians who get played on the show. They must have a store of suit jackets somewhere.